Brian Sewell identified this drawing as by Joseph Anton Koch and he connected it to The Schmadribach Waterfall, a painting signed and dated 1811, which is perhaps Koch's best known landscape, now in the Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig (Fig. 1; Inv. 121; C. von Holst, Joseph Anton Koch: 1768-1839: Ansichten der Natur, exhib. cat., Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 1989, no. 93, ill.). The artist usually prepared his paintings with great precision, starting with a compositional study, usually in pen and black ink, followed by a more worked out and often coloured study. The present drawing is such a first study, probably made from life, in which the artist explores the composition in great detail. Koch used this study for a watercolour which is now at the Kupferstichkabinett in Basel (Fig. 2; Inv. 1942.135; C. von Holst, op. cit., no. 26, ill.). He squared the present drawing, which appears to have been slightly trimmed, and indented it carefully throughout the composition in preparation for the Basel watercolour which follows it very closely, but is slightly larger, measuring 49.6 x 41.3 cm. Having explored the subject twice in, the artist finally painted the large painting (123 x 93.5 cm.).
Though the oil painting is dated 1811, Koch began working on it much earlier. In a letter to Peter Langer, dated 6 April 1811, he states that he started it in 1805, and in a letter of 4 June 1811 the artist mentions the completion of the picture (O.R. von Lutterotti, Joseph Anton Koch: 1768-1839: Leben und Werk: Mit einem vollständigen werkverzeichnis, Vienna and Munich, 1985, p. 286, no. G 16). Koch must have worked on the subject well before 1805; the Basel watercolour is dated by both Lutterotti and von Holst around 1794, when the artist was travelling through the Alps. Around that same time Koch depicted the Schmadribach Waterfall in another drawing in a private collection (Lutterotti, op. cit., no. Z 1068). The present drawing, possibly begun on the spot, must date from that same year. Around a decade after completing the Leipzig picture, the artist turned to the subject again in a picture showing a very similar view of the Schmadribach Waterfall, datable around 1821/22, now in the Neue Pinakothek, Munich (Inv. WAF 449; Lutterotti, op. cit., no. G 53, fig. XII).
The Schmadribach Waterfall is set on the eponymous stream at the end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Bernese Oberland. In the background are the Grosshorn and Breithorn peaks. Koch renders every detail of the scene with great precision. The stream flows from the glacier over the cliff at the edge of the rocky plateau down into the valley far below, where it initially disappears behind a stand of firs, only to reappear as a calmly flowing streaim in the flatter area in the foreground.
Koch was one of the most important and influential landscape painters of his time. While being greatly influenced by Classical landscape painters like Claude and Poussin, the artist dramatically transformed Classical landscape painting. This is particularly evident in The Schmadribach Waterfall; although the landscape is still idealized, it contains a more scientific approach and deliberately omits classical or mythological figures. Instead, only a single traveller is included which emphasizes the vastness of the landscape. This work very directly illustrates contemporary natural philosophical theory and embodies Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) 'Sublime' in nature as described in his Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790). Koch's aim was to present a landscape that would offer enlightened lovers of liberty a screen on which to project their ideas. By moving away from the Classical landscape tradition and introducing the 'Sublime' in his landscape paintings Koch's work expresses the transition to the Romantic landscape tradition that flourished later in the 19th Century.
Fig. 1. Joseph Anton Koch, The Schmadribach Waterfall, oil on canvas, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.
Fig. 2. Joseph Anton Koch, The Schmadribach Waterfall, watercolour, Kupferstichkabinett, Basel.